SOUTH Down politicians have joined the National Trust in voicing concerns about the environmental damage that could be caused by a cable car on the slopes of Slieve Donard.
Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard said he "remained to be convinced" that the proposed project will not have an adverse impact on the area's landscape and sensitive habitat.
His reservations have been echoed by Alliance MLA Patrick Brown, who said that in addition to the potential environmental damage caused by the proposed 'gondola' to Thomas Quarry, there were concerns about its cost.
The centrepiece of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council's planned 'Mourne Gateway' project, the cable car would take visitors approximately 700 ft above Newcastle on the slopes of Ulster's highest peak.
The area is cared for by the National Trust, which has recently sought assurances from the council about the plan, saying "any new project must have sustainable tourism is at its heart".
The entire project was originally earmarked to cost £44m, with most of the money committed by Stromont. However, the pot of up to £30m pledged by the executive is not inflation linked, meaning as costs soar, the burden on ratepayers will increase.
The Irish News asked the council last week what the current estimated cost is, along with other queries, but has received no response.
The National Trust has recently sought assurances from the council about its proposal.
The trust said the project needed to align with its core purpose of protecting "nature, beauty and history".
"We are focused on ensuring safe access for people within the Mournes to connect with place and nature as well as the protection of habitat today and for future generations," the trust said.
It has raised concerns with the council about the impact of the cable car on the environment and the area's ecology. The trust said assessments to date had focused on the "footprint" of the site but that "recreational pressure will extend beyond the development boundary into the designated land".
"The area proposed for a visitor centre in Thomas Quarry is close to precious habitats, to which increased visitor numbers would cause high risk to sensitive ecosystems," the trust said.
It also highlighted the need for a "Mournes dispersal strategy" to address the pressure of growing visitor numbers, which have increased significantly since the beginning of the pandemic.
"Given the existing environmental impact caused by increased visitor numbers, and from our experience of managing tourism pressures at other places in our care, we believe any new project must have sustainable tourism is at its heart, ensuring the community, environment and local economy can continue to thrive in the longer term," the trust said.
Mr Hazzard, whose Sinn Féin colleague and Newcastle councillor Willie Clarke is supportive of the plan, said it was time to "get serious about investing in sustainable tourism infrastructure".
“So whilst parts of the Mournes Gateway vision are badly needed – such as the investment in traffic management in the wider Newcastle area; a modern gateway centre to welcome visitors; and a conservation centre at Murlough – I remain to be convinced that a gondola will not have an adverse impact on the environmentally sensitive habitat, wildlife ecology, and landscape of the Mournes," he said.
Mr Brown said he'd been concerned about the viability of the project for some time.
"Since the assembly election I have been actively engaging with key stakeholders and Newcastle residents on their thoughts regarding this gondola project, and I have found at worst, serious concerns regarding safety and environmental impact, and at best, apathy," he said.
He said turning Thomas Quarry "into a building site" carried "severe environmental risk" and that there were also "significant safety and congestion concerns".
"Whilst we should encourage exploration of the Mournes, we must not forget it is a dangerous and harsh landscape at times, and anyone in the area will be well aware of those who have ventured up the mountain unprepared only to require the assistance of mountain rescue," he said.
"Bringing busloads of tourists, who will likely be unfamiliar with the terrain, halfway up the mountain, is asking for trouble."
Mr McMurray said the council needed to "invest in sustainable, appropriate infrastructure that aids safe and active exploration of the Mournes" and that he could not support spending public money on the project.
However, SDLP MLA Colin McGrath said the project had "the capacity to be a major tourism attraction on the island of Ireland".
"There will of course be environmental issues to be assessed and standards to be met and I would fully expect the planning and implementation process to ensure this is rigorously explored and the highest standards met," her said.
"I understand the majority of the funding for this project will be via the city deal initiative and won’t impact local rate payers – this has the potential if delivered correctly to be a win-win for everyone."